Preemies as adults – are their health problems due to prematurity?

NICU baby looking at mom resized“I was born prematurely. Can my eye/heart/learning problems be due to my premature birth?” This is a common type of question we receive at the March of Dimes.

Babies born earlier than 37 weeks may have more health issues than babies born full term. Prematurity can cause problems for babies all throughout their lives. In fact, the earlier a baby is born, the more likely he is to have health problems. Some problems are obvious during infancy or childhood. But, other problems may not present themselves until adulthood.

While it may be difficult to know if a health problem an adult is experiencing is related to prematurity, we do know that prematurity can cause long-term health problems. An adult struggling with a disorder or a worsening condition should seek medical attention in the event that treatment or therapy may help.

Health problems due to premature birth

Premature birth can lead to developmental disabilities, (DDs)  which include physical, learning, language or behavioral challenges. These disabilities can range from mild to severe. Roughly 1 in 6 kids in the U.S. has a developmental disability.

DDs are usually diagnosed during childhood or adolescence, when a child is still developing. However, the disabilities can be lifelong. Although individuals may learn how to compensate for disabilities through therapy or special schooling, adults with DDs may continue to struggle for years.

DDs also include hearing loss, vision impairment, ADHD, autism, neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, and many other medical issues.

Prematurity can lead to dental problems, breathing problems such as asthma, infections such as pneumonia, and intestinal disorders. For example, some babies who had NEC may have scarring which can cause the intestine to become blocked later in life.

Are there doctors who specialize in treating adults who were preemies?

There are specialists for nearly every body part or disorder, but at this time there aren’t specialists who focus specifically on adults who were born prematurely. However, it’s possible to receive treatment for specific conditions from an appropriate medical specialist. Ask your primary care provider for a referral.

Although we don’t always know whether a health condition is due to being born early, it is still important to seek treatment by a medical professional. Make sure you tell your doctors you were born prematurely.

Bottom line

If you have a preemie, getting help as early as possible (during infancy, early childhood and adolescence) is extremely important. Ask your baby’s health care provider for recommendations. Early intervention services may help your baby catch up, while special education and related services can help him get the assistance he needs in school to succeed. Getting an early start with specialists who treat asthma, hearing loss and other conditions can help to minimize long term complications.

 

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